I spent most of Tuesday night messaging people to tell them why I thought Julian Alaphilippe was going to upset the status quo and defeat Alejandro Valverde on the Mur de Huy. A lot of my points were based on blind faith and I attempted to swat away Valverde’s obvious threat by repeating line like – “yeah, but did you see Alaphilippe at Izulia?”.
With this in mind, you’ll understand how happy I was when Alaphlippe jumped round Jelle Vanendert to move into an unassailable lead with less than 100m to go. Nevertheless, as Valverde emerged in familiar – but deflated – fashion to take second place, I realised that he, too, had played his part in creating one of this season’s greatest finishes.
My initial response to Fleche Wallone was that we had just witnessed the start of the Julian Alaphilippe era. He’s certainly a future superstar, combining a fierce desire (which spawned the ‘Angryphilippe’ nickname) with a punchy climbing style and impressive sprint. Valverde was looking for his sixth victory in the race and was briefly rattled as a lively edition forced his Movistar team into a mild panic. His situation improved as the race headed towards the Mur and the dwindling break was merely a target with 1km to go. It was master vs. apprentice. And the master lost.
Valverde lost the race – and his title – but clearly not much else. He had ascended his favourite climb one second faster than when he won in 2017, the same time as 2016, and just eleven seconds slower than the all-time record. There was little he could do to combat Alaphilippe dipping under the 2:50 mark with an early surge. Overheard shots show that Valverde did make ground in the closing metres but he had allowed a strong Alaphilippe to scamper too far ahead.
Alejandro Valverde’s climbing times on Mur de Huy:
2014: 2:41 (ALL-TIME RECORD)
— Mihai Cazacu (@faustocoppi60) April 18, 2018
Despite a career-long lack of love for Valverde, what he has done since turning 30 is incredible. His ride at Fleche Wallone on Wednesday was still incredible. He replicated his brilliant winning rides to comfortably beat everybody – bar Alaphilippe – once again. He hasn’t finished outside the top eleven in a one-day race this season and he remains the favourite for Liege-Bastogne-Liege this weekend.
The fact Valverde finished second made Alaphilippe’s victory so much better. The master didn’t crumble to an invisible finishing position. He didn’t explode at the crucial moment. Apparently, age still hasn’t caught up with him. It was another brilliant performance and it forced Alaphilippe into producing something even more special. As Valverde cruised past broken riders the Frenchman’s victory was briefly cast into doubt. For once, I was glad the two race favourites had swarmed to the front of the race. It was the battle we all wanted to see and perhaps the only time we will be treated to an Alaphilippe vs. Valverde battle that is so evenly matched.
My mind made a curious leap to the 1975 Tour de France when Eddie Merckx saw his run of five Tour victories in six years come to an end courtesy of a strong Bernard Thevenet. The race is remembered for the Pra Loup stage where, despite early Merckx aggression, Thevenet climbed to victory in famous Peugeot checker-board colours. Merckx, in yellow at the start of the day, exploded on the way to Pra Loup and would never win a Grand Tour again.
What’s not always documented is the fact that Merckx still came fifth that day and finished in a comfortable second place in Paris. He had been in stunning form throughout the spring and was not a broken man in 1975. He was still brilliant, but Thevenet was better. This runners-up spot will mean nothing to Merckx and may, in fact, mean more to Thevenet. When the Frenchman topped the podium in Paris he was standing alongside the sport’s greatest Grand Tour rider.
You’ll often hear sports fans repeat that ‘you can only beat what’s in front of you’. But isn’t it just a little bit better when you’ve beaten the best? Vincenzo Nibali was superb in 2014 when claiming his Tour de France title but I’d have loved both Chris Froome and Alberto Contador to have finished the race.
I greatly admire the ‘win or bust’ attitude of riders such as Contador but on this particular occasion Valverde needed to come second. It was the sign of a true champion.
El Bala is still considered the best Ardennes rider with Alaphilippe now cemented as his number two. Will either win Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday? Nope. On Sunday we’ll see another rider take a maiden Ardennes victory. My money’s on Jakob Fuglsang.